Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Jock Elliott, who shares the following guest post:
When the lights go out: The Essential Listening Post – Part II
By Jock Elliott, KB2GOM
What’s the most valuable commodity in an emergency? Information.
Without information, it is very difficult to make decisions of what actions you should – or shouldn’t – take. Fortunately, as swling.com readers know, radio can come to your rescue.
As an example, I offer for your approval this minor incident that happened just a few mornings ago.
At 4:30 am, I awoke. That’s not particularly unusual; I get up early lots of mornings to run the Commuter Assistance Network on ham radio.
What made this morning unusual were the things I couldn’t see: the digital clock across the room, the tiny LED lamp that illuminates the way to the bathroom in the middle of the night. They were both dark. In fact, the only light that I could see was the LED from the uninterruptable power supply for the computer in the next room. It was pulsing, indicating the power from the mains was out.
With the help of a flashlight kept within easy reach of the bed, I made my way downstairs. A peek out the windows revealed the surrounding area was dark; no lights in local houses, no street lights. A house across the ravine behind my house had a single light, but it had the bright white look of an emergency lantern. So this outage was wider spread than just the lane where I live. But how widespread was it? In early February in upstate New York, it’s winter; temperature about 6 degrees Fahrenheit on this particular morning. The thermostat on the wall has already dropped below where the furnace should have kicked on. With no electricity; no furnace.
With no house power, I had no internet, so I couldn’t look things up to find out why there was no house power. Because we use Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP), with no internet, no house phone.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Well, dummy, fire up your smart phone, and in a few moments you’ll have your answers.”
To that I say: “Not so fast there, pardner.”
I consulted with a ham radio friend who makes his living in the commercial radio business. He consults with many companies, including cell phone companies, so he knows what he is talking about.
It turns out there are three things that could render your smart phone useless.
The first is whether your local cell tower(s) have battery back-up. Most do, but how many hours the batteries will run the cell tower can vary widely from just a couple of hours to perhaps eight. Depending upon when the power went out, you may or may not be able to connect.
The second is that many cell phone towers themselves connect to the rest of the network through wire or fiber optic cable. If a vehicle has taken down a pole, or a falling tree has taken down a cable, the network may be disrupted.
Finally, if there is high demand for your local cell phone tower, you may not be able to make a connection. My commercial radio “guru” relates that he went to an event at a local community college. There is a cell tower right on the property, but he had great difficulty connecting simply because so many people were trying to use the tower.
During emergencies, cell phone networks frequently go into gridlock because of high demand, so it’s a good idea to have other means of gathering information. An interesting aside: some years ago, I heard a presentation from one of the hospital administrators who was in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. They were unable to make voice phone calls, but apparently they could sometimes send and receive text messages.
Getting back to my small lights-out incident, I was in the actual act of firing up a radio to check out what local broadcasters on the AM (medium wave) band had to say, when the lights came on, the furnace started, and internet and phone service were restored. My greatest inconvenience was having to reset a couple of digital clocks.
But it raised a serious question: what should be your essential listening post if the lights go out, the fertilizer hits the ventilation equipment?
First and foremost, a battery-powered radio capable of receiving your local broadcasters. You need to know – or find out – which ones have back-up power so they can keep transmitting. Knowing that will do two things for you: first, tuning in to a station with back-up power will hopefully get you the information you need, and second, if stations that don’t have back-up power are off the air, that will give you an indication of how widespread the power outage is.
Knowing the extent of the blackout can be important. A couple of decades ago, on an August afternoon, my better half and I took our young son to a local park where there was a water fountain that the kids could run through. When we got home later, the power was out. I saw the neighbor standing in her yard and asked if she had reported the outage. “No point,” she said. “Why?” I asked. “Because the lights are out from Canada to Virginia.” Oh.
In addition to knowing which stations are likely to be on the air, it’s also good to know which local stations have news staff that are likely to collect and broadcast information that is needed during an emergency.
Second, if you live in the United States or Canada, you need a weather radio. Every state in the Union has bad weather of one sort or another . . . and some of them can kill you. NOAA weather radio is an excellent source of information. It’s free, and it does a fine job of delivering weather-related info in a concise and useful format.
Third, it would be very useful to have a scanner or ham radio capable of receiving your local 2 meter repeaters. This could be an additional source of useful information in a crisis.
So, are there any radios that I would recommend for “The Essential Listening Post” when the lights go out?
Yes, there are.
First on my list would be the C.Crane CCRadio 2E (or CCRadio3). It receives AM, FM, NOAA Weather Band with Weather Alert and the 2-Meter Ham Band. It will run on house power or, if the lights are out, over 200 hours on batteries. By all accounts, it offers excellent performance on AM and FM, and it is one of the most sensitive NOAA weather radio receivers I have tested. I bought one and can heartily recommend it.
The CCrane Skywave SSB receives AM, FM, NOAA Weather band plus Alert, Shortwave (1711-29.999MHz) with SSB, VHF Aviation Band. It doesn’t receive the 2 meter ham band, but it will receive hams on HF frequencies, which might come in handy in an emergency. It is not quite as sensitive as the CCrane 2E on NOAA weather frequencies, but, as I reported last year it was the most sensitive NOAA weather radio receiver I took to Sodus, NY. It is very small and portable and will run for over 50 hours on batteries. I bought one and can heartily recommend it.
The Eton FRX3+ is an interesting alternative for a “when the lights go out” radio. This battery-powered radio receives AM, FM, and NOAA weather radio with alert. It has a couple of LED lights for navigating in the dark and can be charged by a built-in solar panel, hand-crank, or USB cable, and can even be used to charge your cell phone. Eton Corp. sent me one of these, and I find that it offers worthy performance on AM and FM, and excellent sensitivity on NOAA weather radio. Recommended.
In the future, I hope to offer some additional useful information about NOAA weather radio as well as a comparison of different ways to receive NOAA weather radio, including dedicated weather radio, consumer radio, scanner, and ham handi-talkie.
So last week the Broadband Internet went out in my neighborhood (adjacent to St. Peter’s Hospital) for almost the entire day. But even though we are near a hospital, the nearest cell tower became unusable. But in 2023 – think about this – it’s not because of humans rushing onto their phones to find out what’s going on. It’s because we’ve installed so many apps that are constantly transferring high bandwidth data in the background. Every household probably has a few devices that otherwise would be making all these background transfers via their own WiFi. But once the broadband goes out, hundreds or thousands of dead man’s switches cut those devices over to cellular data automatically. There were probably 2-3 devices pounding the tower in homes where no one was home, where phones and tablets were powered on and left just sitting around.
I work in a Network Operations Center. For the last 15 years until recently when two major cell providers merged and did away with affiliates I monitored 1500+ cell towers. Most towers today will run at least 18 hours on battery now that most lights on top of the towers have been converted to LED. What we considered high priority towers (densely populated areas or sites serving hospitals and such) have backup generators. For lower priority sites we would leap frog portable generators charging batteries and moving to the next site. Most fiber circuits are redundant so downed trees won’t necessarily stop service. A lot of towers are in very remote locations. This makes it impossible in heavy snow or downed trees to get to them with a generator. That’s when outages occur. That or when the last mile fiber ( close to the site where everything comes together) will kill service.
A trick I used at a large event when service was slammed was to turn off LTE and use the 3g network. Most folks didn’t know this so I usually didn’t have a problem. Unfortunately most carriers are turning down their CDMA networks.
I always keep my C Crane CCradio 2E loaded with good batteries.
Thanks for the info!
In Australia all mobile phone technology prior to 3G have be decommissioned, with 3G going in 2024.
Our base stations will only run for 3 hours on batteries. Considering that we also have many thousands of Fibre to the Node cabinets which will also run for 3 hours on sealed lead acid batteries which deteriorate with time, this and for base stations is a massive task to keep up battery maintenance.
Every base station I have seen has at least one air conditioner, which makes the power savings for conversion to LED tower lights pale into insignificance.
We had huge fires in 2019 -2020 summer, the telcos lost 1400 cell phone base stations mainly due to power lines being burnt down. Fire commanders will not allow refuelling through active fire grounds!
Wow! Thanks for the info.
For power outages, I insist on having a land-line, it’s how I contact the local power company to find out how long in estimate of time the power is expected to be out so I can plan my day accordingly, radios and LED lanterns, flashlights etc. are a given, plus having spent 20 years in the Navy, we always had ECC drills where we went for 6-12 hours sometimes without any power while bobbing back and forth out at sea.
What this did was give me ample time to consider what I would do differently at home when given a similar dituation. I never went so far as to invest in a stand-alone generator, because the grid is fairly reliable as I don’t live within the state borders of Texas.
My only real issue is convincing my spouse to follow some simple rules during a power loss event, Keep the fridge doors shut, only open them quickly and grab what you need as there’s no gas stove ,so no means to heat up food.
Anything else is mundane and doesn’t require a radio for casulty updates, (I’m referring to Emergency Electrical Casualty Drill scenarios on a civilian setting).
You need to find out what type of landline you have.
The days of a wire pair from your phone to the telephone exchange, which contains a diesel generator is rapidly disappearing or have gone.
My landline phone is connected to my modem, goes down wires to a fibre to the node box (which are 900 m apart) and the signals go via light in fibre optic to the exchange. If the power fails to any or all of the following FTTN box, modem and phone there is no communications. If you think that a cell phone gets you out of trouble, think again, the cell phone base stations are luck to run for 3 hours before the battery fails. It is likely that both mobile and fixed phones will fail at the same time. This is why radio is the most reliable method of communications even if it is only one way.
I like to keep it simple, it’s a phone line, 2 wires, granted when I first moved in, there appeared to be some sort of shunt blocking the phone line as it was not available one the day it was supposed to be “active”, so I called the phone company to come out and fix their system at the phone box, it was fixed and if there’s a power outage, I merely disconnect the cordless phone and plug in the line power phone I keep nearby for power loss eventualities.
I have not really done a lot of radio stuff, more just collecting, I rely on the AM dial to inform when just calling the power company doesn’t answer why the power is out.
Also, I don’t use a cell phone like most people do, I use it only for emergencies and it gets minimal use as the location I live currently has lousy cell service, (reception low bars in most areas of house including the second floor) which I don’t mind as I don’t use a cell nearly as often as my spouse does, so in that respect a power outage gives me better AM reception because I’m not dealing with the RF EMI the house wiring puts out anywhere but near a window, otherwise I’m forced to go outside most of the time to test out new radios because of the EMI from the house wiring, etc.
Clearly, you have thought this through.
At my current skin-bag age, I prefer to keep things as simple as possible, life is already complicated enough, but true to form a lot of people place artificial barriers or obstacles in front of themselves, be it any number of distractions/obsessions that they devote an excessive amount of finite lifespan towards pursuing.
I guess some individuals prefer a complicated life path, I used to think that was a good thing, you know, constantly challenging my limitations, etc. but not so much when reaching the other end of life.
What is being forgotten is that there are 276 million vehicles were registered in 2020 in the USA. Each one has a battery. All DAB+ and DRM portable radios use lithium rechargeable batteries just like phones and are charged by a USB connector.
Some vehicles have a USB socket in the facia most others have a 12 V outlet or a cigarette lighter socket. These will accept a converter which usually has a pair of USB sockets. These can be used to charge the radio or phone. In addition you can stay in the vehicle and listen to it’s radio!
“Some vehicles have a USB socket in the facia most others have a 12 V outlet or a cigarette lighter socket. These will accept a converter which usually has a pair of USB sockets. These can be used to charge the radio or phone. In addition you can stay in the vehicle and listen to it’s radio!”
I will repeat my comment to Bill R: “One of the fire captains assessing communications during the North Ridge earthquake offered the observation: you cannot be over prepared for communications in a crisis.”
Thanks for your comments!
My Tecsun S-8800 uses a pair of Li-Ion but I have two sets of those, the Lowe HF-150 runs off of 8 AA’s and I have too many Eneloops as backup, plus I have a 20Ahr LifePO4 battery for the Kenwood TS-590S for ham bands & Kenwood TM-V71A to check repeaters.
Monitoring mediumwave stations can give an idea of the footprint of the power outage. I think I would be DXing instead of worrying about the outage. Imagine, no more noise (hee hee)! They would have to pry my cold dead fingers off the radio dials, LOL.
” I think I would be DXing instead of worrying about the outage. Imagine, no more noise (hee hee)! ”
Well, there can be advantages to power outages. Some weeks ago, a windstorm brought down a tree on our lane, which took out the power for our neighborhood. It gave me the opportunity to assess how much noise house power and power lines were causing. Turns out, not much.
I used to recommend a good battery radio, specifically the GE Superadio series. I still have a Superadio II and it seems to work as well as it did when it was new.
In general I recommended and still do recommend an AM-FM battery set with decent AM performance. AM being an afterthought, if a set works well on AM these days it will probably be fine on FM also.
Our best local source of emergency information is our local National Public Radio station, on FM. If things are really bad and all the local FM is out, you can tune in the powerhouse AM stations at night (if nothing else.)
If all the powerhouse AM stations are gone too, you have bigger problems.
“If all the powerhouse AM stations are gone too, you have bigger problems.”
I think it was Colonel John Boyd who came up with the OODA loop . . . Observe, Orient, Decide, Act.
My post tries to address (in part) the first “O.”
One of the fire captains assessing communications during the North Ridge earthquake offered the observation: you cannot be over prepared for communications in a crisis.
In the United States, the National Public Warning System (NPWS) should remain on the air for at least 30 days in a national or regional disaster that interrupts communications and energy supplies. The 77 stations in the NPWS group are mainly well-known AM broadcast stations, currently being outfitted with fuel, generators, auxiliary transmitters and secure facilities for personnel.
I found the National Public Warning System referenced here:
https://www.fema.gov/emergency-managers/practitioners/integrated-public-alert-warning-system/broadcasters-wireless (scroll down a bit)
Thanks for the heads-up on this!
I agree about the unreliability of not only cell phone networks where the base stations are in the most vulnerable positions to get maximum coverage. They are also fed with a electricity line which can be blown/burnt or iced out of operation. I agree about excessive traffic, particularly accessing mobile internet for maps and news which will prevent 911 calls from getting through. Not only is it cell phones but also fibre to the node terrestrial internet, where the conversion from fibre to wire requires an electricity supply. This is the problem with smart speakers. xperi is trying to combine HD radio so that the audio is broadcast but images must come via the cell phone networks, they call this hybrid radio.
In huge fires in Eastern Australia in 2019 -2020 1400 cell phone towers failed mainly because the electricity line was burnt down.
None of these radios can do what digital radio mondiale radios can do in an emergency. Wake the radio, wake the listener, loudly announce an emergency message, show a map of the emergency and give detailed indexed text instructions, with possibly thousands of pages available. It can in vehicle infortainment systems feed data on police road closures to the navigation system to cause it to re-route the driver around the emergency. All of the above can be restricted to a rectangle which has the corners specified by their latitude and longitude. This means that those outside of the area are unaffected.
Lastly in difficult terrain most emergency services use UHF two way radios which can move into black spots. DRM transmitters can be outside of the emergency areas, but have a controlled access mode. This could be used to warn fire crews in forest fires to evacuate even if they cannot get reception in either direction at the time. DRM can operate from below 500 kHz to 108 MHz.
https://www.drm.org/trust-drm-in-any-emergency-worldradioday/ The DRM’s EWF system is in India on 35 very high powered medium frequency (“AM”) which can cover nearly 1300 million people, USA a bit over 300 million haven’t even tested DRM.
Interesting comments. I know absolutely nothing about the availability of DRM in the USA.
Unfortunately the National Association of Broadcasters and the Federal Communications Commission have steadfastly refused to do a side by side comparison between HDradio and DRM. This is because of corporate interests. The only DRM broadcasts in the USA are in the high frequency band aimed at overseas listeners.
Whilst DRM can operate on any broadcast frequency from 530 kHz to 108 MHz, it can use 47 – 88 MHz which was used for TV channels 2 – 6 which is now virtually deserted, with the conversion of TV to digital, 10 years ago.
Great article. I’ve never been a fan of wind-up radios (although I have several in my radio collection) because they generally aren’t very good radios, and the hand cranks tend to be flimsy. For my emergency kits I prefer to keep a supply of high-quality alkaline batteries. (AA and D cells.) You can get them relatively cheap from Amazon or warehouse stores, and they last about a decade in storage. With alkalines, I can use my better portables in an emergency.
I also keep a number of cell phone/tablet power banks in the house, car and emergency kits. They’re relatively inexpensive, and some models can be solar recharged. (Just make sure you have the proper connectors/cables for your radios.)
And, for what you’ll pay for that next higher-end portable, you can get a portable power station (Jackery, EF Ecoflow, etc.) that will power your radios for a long time.
I’m looking at a 60-pack of high-quality AA batteries as I write this. Good point about the portable power station. For home use, I suspect that the UPS for my computer would run any of my non-transmitting radios for a long time.
As to wind-up radios, I still have a FreePlay with a spring-powered wind-up dynamo, but it’s big and noisy and I hardly use it.
Uninterruptable Power Supplies are engineered for a different use case than ours here: They are to provide as much power as possible for a very limited time. Typically they have a communication line to the computer to shut it down.
We need a completely different ratio between battery capacity and inverter output power. Two of the most important features are high efficiency for relatively low output power and low quiescent current draw.
But you can do a different thing: Check if the battery in the UPS is grounded. If so, install a 12 V power socket, for example with Anderson Power Poles. Use the UPS as intended. As soon as your computer is shut down, you can use the remaining charge at the 12 V level without the inefficient inverter.
The UPS I have is this one — https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B01FWAZEIU/ref=ppx_yo_dt_b_search_asin_title?ie=UTF8&th=1 — and allegedly it has a USB charger port.
Rock-bottom lights-out kit for me…
– C.Crane Skywave SSB or Tecsun PL-660. Both have decent AM & SW performance, and can receive SSB voice & data. Both use AA batteries. Use earbuds (or a simple interface box to a computer for data) to minimize batt use.
– A very basic solar set-up like the Goal Zero Guide 10/12 & Nomad panel kit, with spare batteries. These charge directly to AA batteries, and can also charge USB devices such as cell phones, tablets, etc. Spare batteries allow swaps with your radio.
If you’ve got a functioning laptop and can keep it in charge, FLDIGI can be used to decode WEFAX, etc. data broadcasts. That could prove very useful in hurricane season. If you can’t manage a wired connection to the radio, audio linking works fairly well too.
OK, for a dream team, add a Yaesu FT-818 and associated gear. This’ll get you into most local repeaters to both hear and transmit (the only functioning repeater in my area is on the 70cm band), as well as covering the AM, FM, SW, & ham bands. It can also run about 2 hours off of photoflash AA batts (Eneloop Pros or similar), which can be charged by the solar power system.
Excellent! Clearly you have thought about this!
Yeah, a lifetime in hurricane country will make you think.
Sometimes I think “why am I still here?” :^)
Funny! But maybe the fishing is good?
Yes indeed, the fishing is great and the weather is superb. Except for when the winds exceed 80 mph! Eh, made it this long here, might as well stay – with radios at hand.
I will say though, the three weeks after Katrina without power were pretty spooky. It’s been a long, fruitful journey into DX radio since then, especially learning about nighttime broadcast AM.
Excellent point about knowing which local broadcasters will have staff available to report on local emergencies. It is increasingly rare for local stations to have 24-7 staff and rarer still to have that staff trained and aware of conditions throughout their coverage area. Only the bigger towns are likely to have such resources, and they are less likely to cover the areas further away. Social media may, ultimately, be your best bet for local information.
Thanks for the kind words. Social media is certainly worth a shot, but access may be not be possible with the power out and possibly problematic access to cell phone towers (maybe, maybe not). Nevertheless, surprises can happen, like the ability to send text messages during and after Hurricane Katrina.
We agree that a battery-powered radio is a must. Naturally, local radio stations are the first choice – if they are still on the air. As long as there is AM service in your area, this might help a lot. In other countries like most of central and northern Europe, there are more or less no AM stations left. Therefore an emergency radio needs a shortwave range.
One important feature for a battery-powered emergency radio is low power consumption. In this respect you cannot do any better that with a truly analog radio from 30 years ago. My Siemens RK-703 draws 8 mA from two AA cells, at least with headphones.
Modern radios, even the extremely cheap ones, are internally digital. Their minimum current is about 40 mA from three AAA cells. From my experience their reception is not any better.
Thanks for your interesting comments about AM stations in Europe and power consumption.
Is there anything like NOAA weather radio in Europe?
I can only write about Germany: We have nothing like NOAA weather radio, but this is no problem: Our publicly funded radio system operates news channels that broadcast news every 15 or 30 min.
The problem is that radio in Germany means for perhaps 90% of the listeners VHF/FM and the rest listens either by Internet or digital broadcast (DAB+). Most FM transmitters are good for 30-50 km, while DAB+ by design has a reach of 30 km.
So we have a big problem with large-scale power outages.
Thanks for the info!
Alexander, the 5 Australian state capitals use 50 kW effective radiated power with the antennas around 200 m above the ground. We also have repeaters on the same channel as the parent. Canberra, Darwin, Hobart & Gold Coast 20 kW. 2 or 3 transmitters per city.
I agree totally. thanks for the kind words.
Great article Jock! I have multiple redundancies for power outages including radios, power sources, and other essentials. Overkill? Perhaps. But peace of mind is worth a lot in emergencies and as you note, information can be a life-saver. Plus, when the local interference is gone, the radio hobby can get a lot more interesting in terms of what you can hear or what stations you might be able to work with low power! Cheers!